Putting cities at the centre of the post-pandemic world

By Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, Mayor of the City of Buenos Aires, Vice-Chair of C40 Cities

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the role of cities in addressing global challenges like climate change. While cities have been the most affected by the global health crisis, they are also where the most innovative and resilient responses have emerged first. In many cases, these responses allow us to glimpse a more sustainable urban future, one which puts people and their quality of life at the centre of urban planning.

As mayors across Latin America and the world urgently attend to the health crisis, we also need to urgently think about the future of our cities in the pandemic’s aftermath. The recovery process will open doors to rewrite certain rules and it invites us to definitively incorporate criteria of sustainability, inclusion and resilience into how we grow our cities.

Cities are in a privileged position to promote this agenda. In this extraordinary context and more than any time in history, we have shown our ability to redesign and implement public policies quickly, and coordinate across borders to share what works. This anticipates a world where cities will work together to define common objectives and goals — many related to effective climate action — and our colleagues in national and regional government will follow our lead.

Cities also have a comparative advantage: the energy and the will of our young people. As we’ve seen in many other moments of crisis throughout history, those who are best prepared to challenge the status quo and create long term change tend to be the younger generations. They rightly seek to be part of the decision-making process because they understand that a better future is built in the present. Young people count for the majority of the population in many countries, particularly Latin America. Their growing interest and concern for the environment has the power to transform our societies and usher them towards a more resilient and lower-carbon future.

Following the leadership of young people, for more than a decade in Buenos Aires we have been working to mitigate and adapt to climate change, transforming our public spaces and how we manage mobility to ensure better sustainability and quality of life for our citizens. In terms of sustainable mobility, for example, Buenos Aires has 250km of protected bike lanes. In 2009 only 0.4% of trips were made by bicycle; by 2020 that figure was over 4%. Buenos Aires is currently the only global capital with a free public bicycle scheme, Ecobici, with over 200 stations throughout the city.

In Buenos Aires we also have one of the largest car-restricted areas of any global city. Pedestrian areas improve environmental sustainability, quality of life and road safety, and promote better use of public spaces. In the COVID-19 context, to ensure businesses can safely re-open we have pedestrianized 100 new streets to avoid crowds, discouraged the use of private cars and offer alternatives to public transport. This, of course, will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and incentivize more sustainable, economic and safe mobility options.

Furthermore, we are the first Latin American capital — and one of the first cities in the world — to incorporate LED technology in all public lighting, an energy saving of more than 50%. We are also modernizing how we separate and treat recyclable waste, and we have added 110 hectares of new green spaces in the city. To further enhance our climate agenda, we are developing our new Climate Action Plan, a roadmap towards the goal of emissions neutrality by 2050.

In the new normal, cities’ commitments to climate action will also be key to attracting international talent and promoting economic development, supporting the transition to jobs of the future and generating new opportunities. Robust sustainable development will boost cities’ quality of life, itself a decisive factor in attracting students, tourists and investment.

Making this happen will require collective urban action and international cooperation that facilitates the exchange of experiences, access to technologies and green financing. It also requires the inclusion and cooperation of all the different elements of society that give life to cities and are currently helping to construct the new normal. In Buenos Aires, we recently created an Advisory Council on Environment and Sustainable Development, an institutionalized space for dialogue and permanent consultation that seeks the participation and commitment of society as a whole to improve our city’s policy formulation on climate action and better guarantee its implementation.

The aftermath of the pandemic will bring back old challenges and present new ones. There will be no excuses for inaction. Both crises — the global health and the global climate crisis — have galvanized cities’ central roles as global actors. It’s up to us cities to seize the opportunity.

C40 is a leading global network of cities taking bold and ambitious climate action to deliver a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for all.